PEN AMERICA 2021 PRISON WRITING AWARD ESSAY
I'm tired of bitching about life and listening to other people bitch. I've got a visit to go to.
My mother cants to one side, like a listing ship, because of an MS nerve thing that causes half of her obliques to tense all the time. It's gone on for so long that she has a touch of scoliosis. She always lights up when she sees me, a wrinkling star in a frizzy auburn halo. We hug, then the others, my brothers Matthew, Alex, and Eric. You should get to know them.
Alex was Dracula thin until his mid-twenties when something popped in his stomach, and he immediately became the likeness of our dad. He has a stunning, sheer force intelligence tempered only by a retiring disposition.
Matthew and Eric are supposed to be identical twins. They are, in fact, a running case study in Nature v Nurture that goes all the way back to the womb. In terms of teen literature; Matthew is Jacob and Eric is Edward, and someday some girl is going to get lost in that triangle.
"Do you want anything?" Mom asks.
We all sit in the plastic chairs, me facing the COs and the four of them around the plastic stool that looks like a birdbath and serves as our table. They brought two bags of quarters for the sundries.
Matthew is the vending machine guy, so I tell him, “Yeah, let’s do a soda and those peanut butter cheese crackers, however many crackers is the monetary equivalent of a Cliff Bar."
"What kind of soda?"
"I trust you."
Matt hates picking things for me, and I always make him pick. It's actually difficult for me to make decisions about soda. I feel like I should make the most of the choice, given the momentousness of the occasion, and I don't want to ruin it with Pepsi. But in the end, it's just an overpriced bottle of sugar water and additives, so I'm often disappointed. Treats are usually like that for me. I save sodas for special occasions. There's a lot of buildup in my mind and then I'm like, "Oh, this is pretty good, I guess." Exception: Ice Cream, which I love like a child.
"We had some trouble getting in," Mom said. "I was a special visit, thanks to the assistant warden's secretary, but they thought Alex was your dad."
Alex filled in. "Yeah, the lady was like, I see you've been expired for seven years, but you've also been visiting regularly throughout that time."
"The notice they sent me said Alex doesn’t expire until next week," I said.
"I think they confuse them sometimes, because they have the same name," Mom said. "But dad renewed a few months ago."
Matthew returned with the victuals. "Sorry, buddy,” he said, "they were out of the peanut butter crackers. They just had these things."
“These things” were sweeter, almost like cookies, with cream cheese or whatever in the center.
"Too much sugar," Mom said. "Those aren't good for you."
"What are they like?" Matthew asked.
"They're okay." I opened a pack and offered it around to all the boys.
"Weird," they agreed.
"There was a peanut butter cracker stuck on the side of the machine, but there was no way to get it out."
"Thank you, buddy." He'd brought me the red Mountain Dew, which was a strong choice.
We talked about "The Sound of Silence," a cover by Disturbed that I'd recommended to them recently. The original is beautiful and chime like, but the cover has a bitter revolutionary puissance that I adore. Alex couldn't remember who Disturbed was, so I kept going "ooh ah ah ah ah" to remind him, but he wasn't getting it. "Down with the Sickness," I said finally.
"Ah yes," he said, "Richard Cheese."
Matthew is studying to be a computer programmer, but he was born a pop star. He sang a snippet of one of his old songs for me. His voice is plaintive and young and pretty, like him.
"I try to be vague with the lyrics."
"Yeah, that's how they do it." I smile big. "Your eyes are deep like the ocean, and our love is wide like the ocean, and also kind of salty like the ocean."
Mom points out that some of his lyrics are very specific. "The line, ‘falling off your back in the parking lot,’ that's what happened to you."
"Wait," I said, "you were on her back?"
"Yeah," Matthew said. "It didn't work out."
"It usually goes the other way.""
"That's very specific," Mom says. "It doesn't happen to everybody."
There's an important point to be made here about relatability. The tried and true method of pandering to the masses with ambiguous half statements is only one strategy. Another strategy, common in poetry, is for people to write about events in their lives with obnoxious specificity. The relatability is not then in the instance itself, but the fact that life is for everyone, all the time, obnoxiously specific. It's no longer a question of, "did that happen to me?" but of, "does that sound real?" And the more specific an episode, the more potential points of contact, and the more likely it is to sound "real." The specificity of the situation becomes a relatable factor.
"Lean back, guys," I said. "Remember last time, they got onto us about putting our heads together."
"Like we were plotting," Mom said.
I sing my song for them, one that I wrote in segregation seven years ago and have carried with me since. I had avoided sharing it before when we sang quietly to each other at visits, because it was too obviously about suicide. Then again, it wasn't as obvious as I'd thought because no one said anything about the content. Mom said it sounded kind of gospel. Matthew heard alternative. It reminded Alex of our mutually favorite rock opera by The Protomen.
Matthew has friends who do music. I wanted him to pitch my song to a group that did well performing covers but didn't have much of their own to play. They were booked a year out playing bars and small events but had hit the ceiling of live music for pay when you weren't famous or original. They had considered doing more weddings, hoping to up their wage. They had asked Matthew about writing for them before, but he'd never gotten around to it, studying for a computer science degree and all. I had no such obligations. If they'd let me, I'd write them lyrics for an entire album. Apparently, they sometimes play Fulsome Prison as a part of their set. Wouldn't it be interesting to have an actual prisoner writing their songs?
This is only one of many schemes over the years to get my writing in the public eye, and Matthew is always game to help. I tell him he's my champion out there, and it's true. He wants more for me than what I've got.
Eric stops us with a pun. That's his métier, always something peculiar to the moment, some verbal confluence that strikes his fancy and wouldn't make much sense out of context. He doesn't remember them or write them down, even when they spontaneously generate in standard joke form. Like the patterns in the raindrops on a window, ephemeral and kind of neat. He speaks so little, but smiles quietly.
Matthew explains the plot of a movie called "The Upgrade." It's an iteration of the now archetypal fear of a robotic uprising. A man is paralyzed, and then tricked into accepting an AI chip in his spine that will allow him to control his body again. Naturally, the chip has its own ideas about what they should do with his body, and eventually overpowers him completely. The man ends the film trapped in a happy simulation in his own mind.
What if they had dream Sims instead of prisons? The Sim wouldn't be anything outrageously desirable. We wouldn't be princes or rock stars or rock stars named Prince. It wouldn't need to be punitive either, like a Prison Sim of prison. Inside the dream world, illegal behavior would simply be impossible. What would happen when you had served your time?
Let's presuppose there is no undue health risk associated with the program, only a few weeks of physical rehabilitation required. You could earn real degrees inside a virtual world, and work experience. Problematic behavior patterns could be automatically noted and addressed. Prison officials love asserting control. What more control could they have than within a virtual penitentiary? And what if our perception of time was different in the Sim than out? Could you serve ten years in a year?
My brothers and I often discuss the future of technology. Matthew doesn't want to keep his human body. He wants to gradually replace his body with mechanical parts.
"If you open up your arm, it's just messy. You open a cybernetic arm and it's all clean."
Alex largely agrees with him but wants to keep his organic brain alive in a nutrient bath in a spaceship orbiting the earth. They have a longstanding argument about whether you're still you if your brain gets replaced by silicon. It's another version of the Star Trek paradox. Does "Beam me up, Scotty," actually mean, "Blast me into discorporate atoms, then corporate a functionally identical copy of me on deck, Scotty," or not? Matthew contends that as long as his brain is replaced gradually, with no major loss of consciousness, then it is still him. Alex errs on the side of caution. I'm in favor of entirely organic answers to mortality. I love the messiness of living beings, the parsimonious inefficiency of naturally selected solutions. I want to live forever as a weird flesh monster.
Mom usually dozes off by this time, then jerks awake intermittently. Eric nods along.
Alex and Matt explain Roko's Basilisk to me. That is a name for the idea that when AI is eventually invented, it may be prejudiced against humans who didn't work to help bring it into being. Therefore, we should all do our best to bring about the advent of AI to avoid being on that potential AI’s potential shit list. It's the modern equivalent of Pascal's Wager. The fallacy is identical, reducing reality to a set of binary conclusions. There are only two kinds of people in the world; people who divide everybody into two types, and people who do something else. Reality isn't a binary question; it's a spectrum of practically infinite variety and very low validity. Predictions are hard. Our robot overlords might blame you for trying to develop the wrong type of AI. Or the Basilisk could be a self-fulfilling prophecy that would have turned out fine if we ignored it. People who believe in only binary solutions are an existential threat to humanity’s future as much as climate change.
My brothers love conspiracies.
"I'll accept that Hilary Clinton has ordered the assassination of multiple US citizens," I told them, "if you accept that President Bush was behind 9/11."
"Done," Alex said. "You think because we don't like Hillary that we like Bush. He's awful too."
"Never mind. You called my bluff."
Theories like that are what I normally associate with less educated people. It doesn't surprise me when I hear "deep state" nonsense from inmates who've read all the wrong books, but from my brothers, it's always a smidgeon of a surprise. The glory of the internet is also its curse; people can see whatever they want to see. I think conspiracies appeal to their sense of storytelling more than their common sense. Storytelling is more powerful than any argument. As a side note, they voted for Trump. Mom still can’t believe it and continues her campaign to lure them away from the dark side.
"Do you sleep in bunks?" Matthew asked me.
"Yeah, like we're in the Navy."
"What are they like?"
"The bunk bed frames are metal, and we've got mats."
"Sometimes when I'm really tired I lay down in bed and I feel bad because it's so comfortable, and I know wherever you're sleeping isn't."
"It's all right. I don't really remember what beds feel like."
I’ve known people who get out and come back who say real beds are uncomfortable at first. They're too soft. So they go home and sleep on the floor. I'm not complaining. Of all the things I dislike about being incarcerated, the mats are not worth mentioning. I have a certain fondness for my mat. We've shared a lot of dreams.
Prisoners read old classics because they don't know any better. Tolstoy wrote that happy families are all alike, and that unhappy families are each unhappy in their own way. That is self-indulgent balderdash. There's nothing special about my sadness or my pain. Sadness and pain are the most common things in the world, theatre of suffering that it is. Stars are more interesting than the darkness that surrounds them. All men and women suffer, all men and women die, and dwelling on the lugubrious intercourse of the two is without merit. My brothers and our happiness when together: to say that our experience is the same as any other family is a tragic insult. How creased and crinkled must a mind become to think for a moment that tears and tears, mere homonyms, count for more than laughter and love? The tragedy is any mind which twists about itself until it can taste nothing but its own futility.
When the visit ends, we all say goodbye and hug again. We've been doing this forever, and I don't like to draw out goodbyes. Alex looks more like our dad every year. The twins were kids when I went away, and now they are men taller than me. Everyone hugs differently. Hugs are as distinctive as the proverbial snowflake; which, snowflakes aside, can occasionally be identical. Eric, who has said so little, grips me the tightest.
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